Some coaches are drawn to coaching at a young age and rise through the ranks over many years. Others use productive playing careers as a springboard to recycle their knowledge and experience to become elite coaches. Olympiacos head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos belongs to the former group, as he started his coaching career in his late teens. In this segment of Coaches Corner, Sfairopoulos talks about the similarities and differences between these two types of coaches, and especially how to earn respect from players who never saw you in action on a basketball court.
I started coaching at age 19 and stopped playing two years later. I overlapped as a player and coach for two years, but when I discovered how much I loved coaching, I stopped playing. First of all, I knew that I was not a great player. I was a hard worker and started to play when I was 12 years old. I understood that I wasn't good enough to play at a high level. I played seriously for a couple of years in the Greek second division, but after that, when I started to coach, I was so happy coaching kids that I realized that was what I wanted to do. I didn't want to play anymore – and anyway, I didn't have a great future as a player.
I decided to coach kids. At the time, I didn't know how far I could get as a coach. I didn't start coaching because I wanted to be a professional. I did it because I love basketball and through coaching, my love for the game was even stronger. I believe that coaching is a completely different aspect of the game, much different than playing from a mental point of view. I think that there are a lot of good players who cannot be coaches, but also a lot of that could do very well, even average players can be great coaches. Being a coach is different; you must have something inside of you: leadership, the right mentality, be a good psychologist and practice hard with your teams. All of this in one package is not easy to find.
A good coach must know how to handle all situations; players' personalities, crises inside the team, as well as putting together roles and new ideas in practices and games. All of that is very important, but the most important thing is managing all the different personalities and being prepared for all possible situations. This can make the difference as a coach. All of this can be found in a coach who didn't play basketball, but also in former high-level players. That is why we have these two groups of coaches.
Of course, when you have been a very good player, it is easier to earn respect from everyone around: former teammates, former coaches, referees, media, everyone. For coaches who didn't play basketball at a high level, or didn't play at all, earning that respect is very hard. Maybe I worked much more, double or triple, than a well-known player who already knew everyone in the system: players, other coaches, opponents, fans, journalists... If you were a player, it is easier to get a chance to coach than somebody who starts from small teams by coaching kids, whose career needs to increase and get higher and higher to reach the top level. You need to work hard. On one hand, I worked really hard and I still do, but on the other, I had chances to meet coaches, go to big clubs and join the Greek national team as an assistant. This is how I got here, but it is more difficult for a coach who didn't play to reach this point.
Nowadays, assistant coaches are more important than ever and this is why we have four in the team right now. Each of them focuses on a different part of the game. We work with a lot of video. We have a lot of games between the Greek League and EuroLeague, and we work on offense and defense. We want each coach to focus on something specific. I think that their job is important; you need to be serious, hardworking and supportive of all of our players, ready and willing to share knowledge. Assistant coaching roles are very important in this team, to help our players understand the game, improve their abilities and understand our basketball philosophy. That is what causes players to respect them. Players understand that they want to help them and everything they do is to help them get better at what they do. I am very happy that I worked as an assistant for many years with some great coaches. I learned from them for 11 years before I became a head coach. It was a great education for me because I learned different ideas from different coaches. This remains very important for me to this day and I want to thank those coaches for the knowledge they gave to me.
This will be my 31st year coaching and I never sat out for a full season, ever. I was always coaching a team, except for a few months before coming to Olympiacos. This is very important for me because I love basketball and being part of a team. Basketball people, not just coaches, don't have weekends, Christmas, New Year's Eve or Easter. There is no time to rest, but this is what we love. I have no complaints; I am very happy that I am here and am still willing to work very hard, as if it was my first day. I am still trying to learn and get better every day. Above all, I love basketball!
It is no coincidence that most former players who chose to be coaches were point guards. We say that point guards are the coaches on the court, and this is why you need point guards with high basketball IQs, who are smart, able to make good decisions and understand the game not only as players, but also as coaches. The point guard is like the maestro in an orchestra; he has to control everything. This is why it's easier for a point guard to become a good coach.
A coach has to be a teacher, but also act like a father and sometimes even like a friend. It is part of the job to manage different personalities, much like life itself. I treat my players like they are my kids, and this is very important. These are serious words: I treat them like my kids. I congratulate them when I think that I need to, explain when they do something wrong and sometimes I punish them by not letting them do something. You need to be a good father with your players and of course, to be yourself. This is what I also do in my family, and how my wife and I raised our kids, under the same exact principles, the same rules and the same respect for people around. For sure, there are differences between players; not everyone is the same. But there is a limit that everybody must respect and I don't allow anyone to cross it, not even myself. When I ask a player to do something, I do it myself, too. There are no excuses. When the coach, or the father, does something, it is not easy for the kid, or the player, to do something different. Once you learn to respect the rules, there can be differences. Let's say that Vassilis Spanoulis is like my oldest son. He has earned the right to stay up later watching TV than the younger ones!